A Traveling Bibliophile

I would consider myself something of a ‘bibliophile’—someone who loves books. My personal library takes up many bookshelves (and boxes) and I can’t say for certain these days how many of the books of that collection have yet to be read. I try never to travel without a book. Back in the days before e-readers, this meant I would normally carry 1-5 books with me on any vacation, certain that I would finish them. Sometimes I’d have to buy more books while on a trip since I would inevitably run out of things to read!

Peter Dutton on Flickr

Back when I was studying abroad in France, I didn’t even bring a book. (Or if I did, I cannot remember it!) My “reading for fun” in France consisted of reading Harry Potter books in French that one of my friends loaned me with my dictionary and notebook handy so that I could translate unknown words and phrases. As it turns out, this is far trickier when the book involves made-up words to begin with. While I love Harry Potter and it was a great way to practice reading French, it made reading seem like homework. I craved English words.

 As I sought out books in English with a ferocity normally reserved for cake and ice cream, I found myself downloading PDFs to read on my computer. This made for an unpleasant reading experience due to the bright screen and constant scrolling. I sometimes would change the settings so that the screen would rotate and I’d hold my laptop on my lap as if it were a massive, brightly-lit book.

Needless to say, as I kept reading books in PDF form on my computer and searched for English books in the local bookstore, I decided that I should get a Kindle before I traveled next. The thought of having multiple books with me was appealing, especially if I could collect my favorites into a portable version of my real-life library.

When I came back to the States, a Kindle went on my wish list almost immediately. I didn’t get one until around the time I graduated from high school almost a year later, and promptly downloaded several books from Project Gutenberg. That summer found me traveling often– road trips, plane rides, and more road trips. Sean Kelly on Flickr

While I brought some books with me on one of those road trips (and when I say “I”, I mean my dad brought some books which I borrowed to read during the long car rides), they did not last long. Without my Kindle, I would be stuck re-reading the same book over and over, or buying a new book when we stopped somewhere. While that would be somewhat tolerable if we were driving everywhere, I had a few flights in between trips. I’m one of those travelers who attempts to avoid checking baggage, and not carrying around a bunch of books is necessary to this. I read too quickly to bring a single book, even if it is one of those books that is more like a brick than paper.

Later on that summer, my Kindle proved itself as a versatile travel accessory. At a state park in Maine on a rainy and chilly night, my family retreated to the tent just as I finished the second of three books in a series. I was desperate to read the next. The state park happened to have WiFi that I could access from the tent, though the presence of WiFi at a state park seems hilarious and rather pointless. Instant gratification and a few more hours of entertainment were the strangest and best things at the time. That book lasted me through the rest of the trip.

I love my Kindle all the time, but I especially love it when I travel. While I love the feel of real books, the smell, the texture of them… my Kindle makes reading easy and convenient. I love being able to download a book immediately, try out new authors (check out Pixel of Ink for deals!), and being able to download classics for free. I tend to stock up on books I want or love when they’re on sale, so I rarely pay more than $6 for a book.

I rarely read just one book at a time, so being able to switch between classics, random free books, and old favorites like the Harry Potter series with a few clicks makes reading more accessible. I never have to worry that I’ll run out of books. The battery lasts so long that I have rarely encountered the problem of the battery dying on me. I don’t have to make decisions about what books to take or leave for trips or worry that I’ll be stuck without a book, bored and craving words or entertainment. Best of all, I am never far away home– these familiar stories have been with me for so long that reading them again, even on a screen, is a homecoming.

How do you feel about e-readers? Do you have a favorite book to read while traveling?

Originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global. 

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Travel Snobbery

Recently, a friend shared an article titled “Your Wanderlust Is Inauthentic: The Real Difference Between Travel And Vacation”. While the article made some good points, those are shrouded in what I can only describe as Travel Snobbery. To the author, there is only one right way to travel, and doing otherwise cheapens the experience and makes it into a “vacation”, which has little merit.

For the author, vacations are trips of privilege. These are all-inclusive trips to a resort somewhere tropical and thus, exotic and worthy of bragging about. Vacations do not include public transportation or wandering very far. Vacations are experiences without culture shock or immersion. Because of this, “vacations” and “authentic” travel experiences are two completely different things.

I wholeheartedly disagree. Vacations are not separate from travel experiences.

The definition of “authentic” travel provided in the article seems to exempt the sort of tourist activities that can be an essential part of a trip. In the article, “authentic” travel experiences should be a quest to deviate from “the beaten path” and “search for the elusive history of a country and its people”. If learning the history of a place is your goal, it is not so elusive. People usually want to share their culture with you in ways that are accessible to many. Culture is preserved and shared in many ways– in museums with signs and souvenirs, in brochures at the local tourist office, and guidebooks to name a few. Those are all touristy, but no less important.

Meaningful travel should not keep you from experiencing the well-known, “brag-worthy” marvels of the world. In Rome, does “authentic” travel demand that you skirt the Coliseum to avoid the inevitable touristy atmosphere that surrounds it? Or do you make two trips to Rome? One should be a “vacation” where you stay at a ritzy hotel and travel by taxi to all the Meaningless Touristy Spots. The “authentic” experience would demand a stay in a hostel without air conditioning and stumbling your way through small talk “conversations” in jumbled Italian, walking down alleys that hold neighborhood pizza places, and wasting sleepy afternoons in streets that kind of all look the same. Are you “enlightened” about Italy based on these superficial experiences of Italian culture?

Any experience of foreign culture is based on your perspective as an outsider. An American in Rome will never have the same experience as an Italian who grew up there. Travel allows you to return home with a more well-rounded view of yourself and the culture in which you grew up. It is arrogant to suggest that your presence in another country can in any way impact that country more because you avoided the “touristy” things. Tourists make impacts on countries, especially economically, that are undeniably significant. On a smaller scale, people make connections to each other while traveling, be it through couch surfing at a local’s house or showing kindness to the cleaning person at your hotel.

Experiencing culture can take many forms wherever you visit, and “culture” is not something to be worn like costume. It is not simple, disposable, or made for a traveler to experience. Culture is complex and includes the traditions, beliefs, mannerisms, art, and history of a place or of a people. You will not become part of the culture where you are merely a visitor, no matter how much you try to act like a local.

People go to Paris to see and experience French culture. While it is certainly not representative of all of French culture, in avoiding the tourist attractions, you are missing out on that very culture. By not visiting the Louvre, you are missing out on seeing the masterpieces of French artists, not to mention all the other masterpieces that are collected there. In avoiding the Eiffel Tower (which would be quite a feat), you are missing out on a wonder of engineering. You are missing out on a story that is a part of France’s history.

The beaten path includes some of the most beautiful views and cultural landmarks. While the back roads might give you a glimpse into the life of the people that live in a city, it does not make you part of that city. The laundry hanging from the windows, the overgrown plants in window boxes—those cannot tell you the story of a country and of a people in the same way that their art can. That brief glimpse cannot tell you the history of a proud nation.

There is no right or wrong way to see the world or visit new places. Travel should enrich your life, whether you are visiting a beach you have been to a thousand times or a city that you have only dreamed about.  While it is wonderful if your travels enable you to see the world and people more complexly, traveling with the intention of leaving as a different person is incredibly limiting. Simply allowing yourself to experience and enjoy your trip is enriching on its own, regardless of how much exposure you get to the everyday experiences of the inhabitants.

To the author of the original article, I respect and understand your passion. It is wonderful that the way you travel makes you happy and provides you with enriching experiences. But your experiences aren’t the only valid traveler experiences. Everyone’s experiences are valid, whether or not you choose to travel off the beaten path or if you stick to what is safe and commonly visited. People travel for themselves and will find their own way. Many of them come back with their own passion and a case of wanderlust that is more than just a passing trend.

(Thanks to my friend Laura for helping me with this blog post! Originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global.)

Tallinn, the Tijuana of Scandinavia

March 14 – 16, 2014

Sometime in February, an event appeared on the Facebook page for exchange students in my town: a trip to Tallinn. While I initially had little interest in going, many of my close friends wanted to go and after a while, I caved and signed up. A few weeks later, we were Tallinn-bound, my first trip outside of Joensuu since I arrived.

For those of you unfamiliar with this region of the world, this is what it looks like:

Joensuu is in the Eastern part of Finland, near the part of Finland that juts out towards Russia. Just for reference’s sake.

Tallinn is the capital of Estonia. I had never heard of it before, but it’s known for being a medieval city– the old town is a beautiful walled fortress and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a common tourist destination, easy to get to via ferry/cruise from Sweden or Finland. Tallinn is a popular place for Finns in particular– Estonia is cheaper than Finland, especially for buying alcohol and cigarettes. Apparently, before they get married, many Finns will come to Estonia to buy alcohol for the wedding. And of course, for exchange students, this opportunity to buy some cheap alcohol is worth the trip to another country.

The trip we were going on had a pretty loose itinerary: leave at 5 am from Joensuu for Helsinki (via bus, a trip that would take 8 hours), ferry to Tallinn (2 hours) and then check in at the hotel. We had 2 nights in Tallinn and then a stop at a big alcohol store before boarding the ferry back to Helsinki and then busing back to Joensuu. Luckily, the bus stopped at each of the common neighborhoods where exchange students live, which made the 5 am departure time slightly less inconvenient but no less painful. My street was one of the first stops (and later, the last).

I only packed my school backpack for this trip, since it would only be a couple days and I wasn’t anticipating buying much while there. Plus snacks. So many snacks– including blueberry scones which I shared with my friends. Eight hours on a bus is a lot of time to fill and while some of that time was early enough in the day that we could sleep, sleeping in cramped quarters on a bus full of exchange students (and a couple Finnish students) are not the best sleeping conditions.

At any rate, we amused ourselves well enough and by the time we made it onto the ferry to Estonia, we were sleepy and silly, talking about who-knows-what and munching on endless snacks to stay awake.

The first thing we saw upon arriving in Estonia was an alcohol shop. And right across the street from the ferry terminal, our hotel. This seemed rather indicative of the type of place that Tallinn would be.

The first night, my friends Carmen, Maja, Mareike, and I decided that we wanted to wander around a bit and check out some of the stores nearby. After some wandering, we ended up going to Vapiano, a (German) Italian (fast food) restaurant for dinner that Maja and Mareike promised would be good. It was delicious, and notably– cheap!

Me, Maja, Carmen, and Mareike

Then, we stopping at a random shopping center to pick up some drinks and yet more snacks on the way back to the hotel, which is how the first night was spent eating more junk food than we should have and watching MTV– the only channel we could find in English.

The next day the four of us decided we should explore the Old Town before going shopping. We met up for breakfast at the hotel and then headed off to Old Town. It wasn’t a far walk, but it was a gloomy and drizzly day, which made it less than ideal for exploring.

Carmen, Maja, and I

Carmen and I in front of an impressive-looking church door

Mareike, Maja, Carmen, and I wandered around, took a bunch of pictures, and stopped into a few stores to browse.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – photo by my friend Mareike

The Estonian Parliament (across from the Cathedral)

We ended up going into the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and sitting for a while, watching what looked like a baptism or maybe just a small choir practice. It was beautiful inside– ornate gold, typical Russian Orthodox style. The ambiance provided by the choir made it even more beautiful as the voices echoed and a small crowd of people watched. An elderly Estonian woman scolded us for having our legs crossed, though we weren’t sure exactly why since we had no idea what she was saying. Estonian is close to Finnish– not that any of us speak Finnish, either.

Overlooking Old Town

Overlooking Old Town

Overlooking Old Town — featuring an overly-friendly seagull

Overly-friendly seagull

The Times we had

Mareike, Maja, myself, and Carmen at the overlook – photo from Mareike

We wandered back outside and over to an overlook of the Old Town and city. You may have seen it in pictures before, at least if you spend a lot of time looking at pictures of places you’ve never been– there’s a wall that says “The times we had.” It’s the sort of melancholic beauty that seemed fitting for the gloomy day, and a reminder to enjoy the time with my friends while we were there.

Town Hall Square

Wandering back down through the Old Town, we saw a sign advertising a sky lounge and coffee shop called Katuse Kohvik. Since it was a Saturday, and coffee and cake is something of a tradition for us, we decided it was a fine place to stop.

The barista in the coffee shop was a bit overly friendly, which was unexpected and frankly made us feel uncomfortable. We joked that maybe we had gotten too used to Finns who say little and don’t try to make personal connections with you. They also don’t call you “sweetie” or “honey”. It was a bit off-putting, but the drinks were warm and the view from the coffee shop was pretty cool. Of course, while we were there, it started snowing. While we grumbled and groaned because we were tired of snow, watching the snow drift down in waves from a warm rooftop coffee shop is the sort of magical thing that makes life beautiful.

Inside the coffee shop

Looking out the windows

Mmm, hot chocolate…

After finishing our drinks, we braved the snow storm to continue our way out of Old Town and to the shopping center. We ducked in an Estonian store and sampled some Moose sausage with cheese and admired the wood and wool work they were selling. For the record, I love moose, but it’s also quite tasty in sausage form. Besides, trying strange foods at random is one of the great joys of travel.

Samples!

Trying moose sausage

We finally made our way to the shopping area we had been exploring the day before and commenced our shopping afternoon. We all seemed to be buying summer-type clothing, which probably wasn’t the best decision, since summer weather was a mythical thing for us. Besides, who buys summer clothing when it’s snowing outside?!

When we got tired of shopping, we ended up back at Vapiano for dinner. This time I splurged and bought myself a glass of wine, a rare treat since wine is expensive in Finland and even then, it’s not particularly good wine. Eventually we made our way back to the hotel, already planning to meet up later with some of our other friends at a bar. Our one foray into the nightlife of Tallinn, and a pretty tame one at that!

Later in the evening after our nap/productivity break, we met up in the lobby and made our way to a medieval-looking bar in the basement of a building in Old Town called Porgu. I wouldn’t have even known it was a bar/restaurant from the outside. Honestly, it looked like a medieval dungeon or the sort of place that bootleggers would hide out in the 1920’s during prohibition. Maybe that’s just me though.

When the rest of the girls arrived, we took over a big table and everybody was delighted to find out this bar had a large selection of German beer. Even better, the beer was cheaper than in Finland, and far superior. I might not be the biggest fan of beer, but the one I had (a dunkel) was really good, and of course we all passed around our drinks for the others to try. Friendship is sharing beer, y’know.

Table full of beers – photo from Mareike

Carmen and I

Me and my friend Marie

The next day, we didn’t do much: breakfast and the stop at the “Super Alko”– there were many debates about which alcohol was worth spending money on– and then we loaded up the bus and headed to the ferry terminal.

And of course, the last thing you see before you leave Estonia… is another alcohol shop. After all, Tijuana Tallinn is the place you go to party with friends, where you explore your vices and stock up before returning to your everyday life.

(Originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global.

The Promise of “Cheap” Travel

Hello!

This might come as a surprise to some of you, but I’m becoming a skeptic of cheap travel. 

This is taboo to say, I think. Especially for a student.

But hear me out.

Excited to fly to Stockholm. Photo courtesy of my friend Sophia.

Excited to fly to Stockholm. Photo courtesy of my friend Sophia.

I love to travel, and I cannot afford to go all the places I want to go… at least not full price. But the more I travel, and the more I research opportunities to travel, the more I’m realizing how inconvenient it is. I mean, sure, Ryanair and Easyjet are wonderful things, but when it comes down to it: how much are you gaining from the few extra euros?

Everyone and their mother has heard of Ryanair (or Easyjet or Jetblue… insert other budget airline here). It’s a great option, and I will almost certainly be using it at one point while I’m abroad. That hasn’t happened yet, though.

As it turns out, for the places I want to go are not easily accessible by Ryanair. (Or other “budget” airlines!) For example, to get from my university town of Joensuu, Finland to Aix-en-Provence, France (where I’ll be this summer), I would have to take a bus or train from Joensuu to Lappeenranta, then a flight to “Milan”, “Dusseldorf”, or “Barcelona”. None of those airports are actually in the cities associated with them. Mostly, to get from those places to the nearby (bigger) airports, I’d have to take a bus, train, or taxi. And then another flight, bus, or train to Marseille. And then someone would have to come pick me up, or I’d have to take a bus to Aix.

IMG_2522

Sometimes surprisingly cheap: train travel!

And of course, I’d have to pay luggage fees.

That’s just not a reasonable option. While I love train rides and flights, there is nothing glorious about spending so long in transit or hauling luggage around. If I were traveling with a carry-on only (which WILL be the case one day…), I would still worry. Even on bigger airlines, sometimes you end up on planes that are so small that you can’t possibly fit your standard (maximum sized) carry-on luggage into the overhead compartments. The stress of traveling in such a haphazard way when you have a very specific destination to get to and don’t want to waste your time or money city- and country-hopping your way through foreign airports to get there just isn’t worth it. At least for me.

That is not to say that there’s anything wrong with budget travel.

I think the danger of it comes in when travelers unsuspectingly lock themselves into the “budget” option without considering the more standard alternatives… the ones that aren’t “budget”. Sure, a flight from Paris to Marseille COULD be $300, but if you know where to look, a flight on a major airline between the same airports might also be $70. If you’re checking bags, or want to go to specific (more central) locations, rather than the out-of-the-way options provided by airlines like Ryanair, then you should be INCREDIBLY thorough in your research.

Consider transportation to the airport, fees, transportation between airports/your final destination at EVERY leg of the trip. IMG_2778

It takes time and patience to figure it out. Also math. All to answer the question: how can you puzzle together the ABSOLUTELY cheapest option?

There reaches a point where it is no longer fun to play with the endless options. When you realize that maybe the “cheap” options that everyone tells you about aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Or maybe you just find out that an extra 3 euros gets you a better departure time, or an extra 20 gets you a snack and a free checked bag. Or, against all expectations, the budget option is actually MORE EXPENSIVE than the more traditional route. I can’t say which is better– the adventure and stress of piecemeal travel might be your style, and I certainly want to try it out in some capacity!

In the meantime, though, for your convenience…

Here are my suggestions for places to find cheap flights without the hassle. Add your favorites in the comments– I’d love to know how everyone gets around 🙂

Have you travelled on “budget” airlines? I’d love to hear your experiences!

(originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global)

The First Two Weeks

Hello, all!

Little did I know, a little over two weeks ago when I first said that I was heading into another whirlwind, how accurate that description would be!

I can’t believe that January is almost over. My time here seems to be flying by! The days are so short but they feel so long. The first week in particular felt like it was so much longer.

Most of my time in Finland thus far has been dedicated to settling in, meeting new people, and figuring out how I’m going to survive here for the next few months. I have just now started taking pictures of all the things that have been going on, but here’s the not-so-brief story about my time here so far!

WEEK ONE

After the insane travel day through Helsinki (during which I wrote this blog post), I made it to Joensuu  (pronounced with a ‘Y’ sound instead of a ‘J’) where my tutor picked me up from the SMALLEST AIRPORT I have ever seen. It was pretty much the size of a mobile home with a conveyor belt for luggage and some seats. It was dark out by then– around 5:30 in the evening, it was just as dark as it would be at 8 o’clock at night in North Carolina!

My tutor, Jouni, gave me a brief tour of the campus and town as he drove me to my hotel, where we dropped off my luggage, including my suddenly-useless rolling suitcase, which does not work at all when the ground is covered in pebbles! After showing me around the center and arranging to meet up the next day, he left me to my own devices. While my hotel had free wifi, I had to brave the cold and foreign land outside to get food, with the knowledge that I lacked a microwave and for the next two days– Sunday and a national holiday– my ability to find food would be limited.

Ready to head out into Joensuu alone!

So I did what any college kid on a budget would– and got a pizza big enough to last a couple of days! Luckily the random pizza place (which appeared to be the only thing open at that hour) had a menu in English, a student discount, and the workers were patient enough with my inability to comprehend what they were saying that I made it out alright, if feeling a bit awkward and embarrassed!

Dinner for the next couple days…

That first night seemed to last forever. Physically and emotionally exhausted, that first night was rough. I kind of expected that based on my experiences in France.

The first night in a foreign country alone can be hard, and that night was no exception. My exhaustion combined with my disappointing dinner and computer issues lead to a not-so-fantastic first night in Finland.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but for the sake of full disclosure– and because it’s hard to talk about the parts of travel that suck– I spent most of my first night crying, before falling into a restless sleep. I didn’t expect it to be so difficult or awkward to be in a country where I don’t speak the language, could barely understand the accent, and where everything felt so unfamiliar. It was isolating, being in a hotel room alone, feeling as though I had been shoved ceremoniously into this freezing and foreign place. The kinds of questions that you must inevitably face while studying abroad sprang to mind, and it felt like I was being beaten over the head with what-if questions and doubts.

When I woke up the next morning, not terribly well rested, I opened the curtains and looked out at the city. A gloomy, cold day– but there was something a bit relaxing about seeing the city in the few hours of daytime, even if there was not much light. The light dusting of snow and the stillness of a gloomy Sunday morning were something of a comfort.

The view from my hotel room

It’s much easier to motivate yourself to explore a new place in the light of day. It doesn’t seem as scary then.

After all, if there’s one thing about waking up in a new city, it’s that the desire to explore will be present. I was still wary of it, and convincing myself to get dressed and wander for a while in the cold was no easy task. Spending all day in my hotel room– or at least, spending the whole morning until I met up with my tutor– would accomplish nothing but make me homesick.

Unfortunately, Sunday mornings in European cities are not bustling affairs. Most shops are closed, and Joensuu seemed pretty deserted. But in the morning light I was able to locate the grocery store– and more important to me– the H&M, the oh-so-familiar European brand of generally cheap fashion, with its signs proclaiming SALE! SALE! SALE!, not ALE! ALE! ALE! (the Finnish version). A strange comfort to me, recalling my time studying abroad in France. One of the first places I went to in Paris was the H&M to buy a pair of skinny jeans– a new, and now essential, part of my wardrobe. (And, of course, a crucial place for pre-Finland preparation, once again buying skinny jeans. I’m noticing a trend here…)

ANYWAY, my tutor picked me and my inconvenient rolling suitcase up and promptly took me to the wrong apartments! We figured it out and made it to my apartment, which was cold and empty. I dropped off the suitcase and he drove me back to the center of town. He gave me a bit more information about the study abroad orientation that would start on Tuesday and told me to meet him two hours beforehand with the tutee group.

And then I was on my own again. 

I wandered around for a bit longer, stopped by the grocery store to pick up some food that would keep in my mini-fridge for a couple days, before heading back to my hotel. I finally heard from my friend Carmen and invited her to come stay with me so that we could catch up (she had been in Joensuu for a few days at that point!) and hang out. So the second night in Finland was not so lonely– we watched Kill Bill volume 1.

The next day– Monday– we met up with her tutor and their tutee group and got a tour of the city and the campus! The day passed quickly and happily, meeting new people from the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia, and Spain, and finally seeing more of the town. 

At the end of the day, Carmen, our new German friend, and I hiked out to our apartments– I say “hiked” because we live a whole 5 kilometers away from the center! It was cold and dark and I carried my second piece of luggage so that I wouldn’t have to deal with it the next day when we had orientation. It was a long walk– we didn’t talk much and for the most part, we had no idea where we were going. We made it there alright, and Carmen and I promptly turned around and walked back to the hotel. At this point, my apartment was bare– my room had furniture and curtains, but no linens or anything!

After a sad dinner of mysterious grocery store food, we watched Kill Bill volume 2 and went to bed.

Random grocery store foods

The next few days were insane, with orientation seeming to last forever and not providing much new or interesting information. The list of tasks that we had to complete within that first week was overwhelming, and it seemed as though we would never finish anything in time— particularly since everyone else there had to do all the same things! Signing leases on our apartments, registering with the school, beginning registration for classes, paying fees, renting survival kits from the Student Union, renting bikes, buying anything that we didn’t have, opening bank accounts, setting up internet in the apartments, buying a phone… the list seemed to go on forever!

I managed to do everything I needed to do in that first week— though my apartment was FREEZING and my first night there was horrible! I didn’t have internet or a phone for most of the first week, so I had no way to communicate with anyone, and I became very thankful for the fact that I had a few nights in a hotel room. I can’t imagine how horrible my first few nights in Finland would have been without internet or a phone, in a freezing-cold room without sheets or blankets or even a pillow.

Luckily, the first week was not all stressful things! We met and befriended more people and the ESN Joensuu hosted a “get to know each other” party at a club downtown for free. So one evening was spent talking to people from all over the world, dancing, and singing Karaoke. That was one of the most amazing evenings ever. I never thought I would be singing along and dancing to American oldies in a club in Finland, making up ridiculous dances to incomprehensible Finnish songs, or belting out “Don’t Stop Believing” on stage with new friends from Russia, Germany, and Latvia. 

It seems everyone in the world knows all the words to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. As “Bohemian Rhapsody” started, my German and Latvian friends were whooping and cheering, proclaiming that it is the best song ever written. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, I agree. I’ve been singing along to that song with friends for years in the US, and that experience is just as magical, if not more so, in a club surrounded by strangers from all over the world, singing it with new friends.

That evening alone made me feel entirely at home here. Everyone seems to love the Beatles, Queen, and watching different groups of near-strangers get up to sing to songs that I grew up listening to and realizing that everyone knows the words– even if they can’t pronounce things perfectly– filled me with joy. 

And that was not the only adventure for the week!

The view from the bridge on the way to Kerubi, Saturday night

The view out the window from the upstairs of Kerubi

The upstairs lounge

Saturday night found Carmen, her flatmate Tuula, a friend of her flatmate, and I at a club called Kerubi to see a rock festival! We only really went to see a band called Santa Cruz, one of her flatmate’s favorite bands, but we ended up watching a couple other shows.

Carmen, myself, and Tuula

Santa Cruz was great. It was fun to watch– these Scandinavian guys with long hair, head-banging and singing songs that were very reminiscent of the 1980s, while everyone danced and sang along! There was no crowding or pushing like at shows in the US and it was not deafeningly loud– you could stand comfortably near the stage and not feel as though you would go deaf or be knocked over by the sound or the crowd!

After their set, we wandered around the club for a while, talking to strangers, before Carmen found the band and decided that we should take pictures with them– which is just what we did.

For a while, we made our way back upstairs where Tuula and I were pulled into this roaming circle of people by some random drunk guy, a blob of strangers with their arms around each other, laughing and kicking their legs out and spinning about, breathless, drunk, and crazy but so happy and having fun. I couldn’t stop laughing as we were swung about, thinking about how this was insane and so different from the US. As the set ended and the band left, the circle dispersed and the guy who pulled us in to the group hugged us and started babbling about how this must be the next mosh pit– a “love mosh”, he called it– where everyone is friends and loves each other. I love the idea; there was something special about those few minutes of wild movement and closeness to strangers.

We wandered back downstairs, where we re-connected with Santa Cruz and hung out in a hallway talking to them for a bit; took some more pictures, and finally left.

We wandered to a popular bar in town called Jet Set (which the Finnish pronounce as “Yet Set”), a sports bar with some of the cheapest beer in town, where we sat with a group of strangers at a table. I watched a football match for a while, and Tuula left for a bit and came back leading an African man. As he stood near the table and sipped on his beer, Tuula informed me that he wanted to meet Carmen and I — and that he was a male stripper from Helsinki!

That was one of the funniest interactions ever. He introduced himself as “Bone” and told us a bit about how he was born somewhere in Africa, lived in Bulgaria for a few years, and then fell in love with a Finnish woman and moved to Helsinki, where he’s lived for the last 15 years. He and the woman broke up, and now he was travelling for a bit and had just bought a place in the downtown area of Joensuu. He wanted to hang out with us and offered to make us dinner at his place sometime! We didn’t take him up on the offer, but it still makes for quite a story… how we randomly met a male stripper from Helsinki at a bar in a random town in Joensuu! 

We left Jet Set and made our way back to Kerubi to hang out with Carmen’s tutor, Johanna, her boyfriend Antti, and their friends. It kept getting later, and if it had been up to me, I would have left at this point! Walking the 5 km back to the apartments alone sounded like a horrible idea, though, so I stayed. I’m glad I did, too– the rest of the night was just hanging out and talking to Johanna, her boyfriend, and their friends. They were all very nice and I eventually got pulled into a miniature version of the love mosh, made up of these friends, in a close circle where we bumped hips and kicked in unison, all the time spinning in a tight circle, laughing. 

“This is a very Finnish thing!” Johanna informed me when she pulled me into the group.

The “it” drink in Finland right now– Garage

Johanna and I!

The evening slowed down a bit; the club played Elvis, Of Monsters and Men, and some other great songs– many of them oldies that I never thought I would hear in a club or dance to– but there I was, dancing with strangers to songs that I love. 

Finally, we parted ways and made it back to the apartments– exhausted, but happy.

WEEK TWO

Week two was not as exciting as week one. For the most part, it included buying some things that were unexpected necessities– including ski pants– meeting up with friends, and finally attending my first class!

There was one evening of fun– bowling with all the exchange students, followed by a trip to Jet Set (of course), where we wasted a lot of time laughing, telling stories, and even tried to play some card games. As it turns out, playing Blackjack/21 at bar with a group of 9 is quite useless, particularly when most of you are bad at math anyway! It was still a fun experience, and it seemed ‘normal’ — if staying at a bar until 12:30 am on a weeknight is ‘normal’, that is. (To be fair, it doesn’t seem all that strange in Europe, and most of us didn’t have class the next day, so it was essentially a weekend?…)

At this point, I’ve started to settle into my life in Finland. While my apartment is still a bit chilly, my room has started to feel more like home despite the bare walls. I picked up a rug from the entryway to my building that seems to have been abandoned… lucky for me, since my room would look particularly colorless without it!

While week one was “warm” (with temperatures hovering around freezing), the weather started getting colder and more like a typical Finnish winter. I rode to the university or center most days. I never thought I would be riding at least six miles a day in temperatures below freezing, but that is a near-daily activity. The ski pants are essential to making this trip more tolerable (though it seems a bit excessive?) and I am certain that I always look a bit ridiculous in my moose hat, with a massive scarf wrapped around half of my face! But the shared thought here is that it doesn’t matter what you are wearing or what you look like, so long as you are warm. It’s so cold that your breath freezes on your skin, hair, and any fabric near your face. It’s not uncommon to arrive somewhere and look like you have aged 60 years. In those conditions, you just can’t be too picky!

I suspect that I’m starting to adjust to this sort of life in Finland. There’s part of me that feels very tough– I would never imagine myself doing this in the States! But it’s so normal here, and while I still detest the cold, my outlook on what is difficult to do is changing. Zero degrees Fahrenheit sounds like a reasonable temperature, freezing sounds like summer, and after this experience I don’t think I can complain about any walk (or bike ride) that is less than 5 km, especially if it’s in any temperature above freezing!

So, that’s Finland so far. I’m leaving some stuff out, but this blog post is already quite long! I just wanted to give a (not-so-brief) update on my experiences so far! I hope you enjoyed reading and that wherever you are is warm, and if it isn’t– I hope it’s beautiful. 

A bientot,

Aly

The Whirlwind Month

Hello, all!

Well, 2014 is here and I am writing this from Finland (!). The Helsinki airport, actually, since I haven’t made it to my final destination of Joensuu yet.

On the plane!

(Note: This was written 2 weeks ago, I’m late on publishing it…)

It hasn’t quite sunk in yet that I am in Finland. The last few months have been a whirlwind, and I am still caught up in it. I’ve spent most of the last 24 hours travelling, and despite the fact that I am sitting comfortably now, I feel as though my feet haven’t quite touched the ground. Though that might just be the jet lag…

I intended to blog some over the past month, and I will probably end up blogging about parts of it more in-depth later (particularly my trip to New York City to get my Student Residence Permit and my trip to Hawaii!), here’s the run-down of my whirlwind month!

At the Finnish Consulate in NYC!

  • Marathon road trip to NYC over Thanksgiving Break with my mom and two girls from my school who are also going to Finland to turn in paperwork and have biometrics taken for Finnish Student Residence Permit

  • Wandering around NYC for a day

Photo by my friend An

  • Celebrating one of my best friend’s birthdays
  • Exams!

  • Student Marshaling at December Commencement with Laura
  • Packing/moving out of my dorm room
  • Finishing up work stuff

Birthday dinner at my favorite restaurant in Asheville!

  • My 21st birthday!
  • Unpacking from school
  • Packing for Hawaii

Hanging out in Hawaii

  • Week in Hawaii to celebrate mine and my mom’s birthdays/Christmas
  • Unpacking from Hawaii
  • Packing for Finland and other preparations for travel
  • Packing up all my other belongings to be moved when my mom sells our house (while I am abroad)

  • Saying goodbye to friends/family

  • Ringing in the New Year with my mom, my brother, my mom’s best friend, and one of my best friends

The view from the Helsinki airport.

  • The trip to Finland so far!

I don’t feel like I have had a moment to breathe over the last month. As it turns out, preparing for study abroad while life carries on with its complications and demands is no easy task; it can be quite overwhelming.

Not to complain, though. The overwhelming qualities of this experience are well balanced out by my excitement and I am incredibly lucky to be having this experience. My friends and family have been wonderfully supportive through everything, and wrapping up the year with so many memorable adventures has been the best send-off.

For all that, leaving is no easier. While I am comforted by the positive attitudes and emotional support of my friends, I remain slightly uneasy about the trip. I feel quite unprepared– still!– even as I sit in the airport, mere hours from arriving the town that will be my home for the next 5 months.

It seems kind of ironic.

So much of my life for the last few months has been spent preparing for this trip, be it editing my (super-specific!) packing list, finishing up paperwork, applying for an apartment, the list goes on… and yet, when it comes down to it, no preparations will prepare you for how things are.

Studying abroad is like any other kind of travel– scary, overwhelming, exciting– but most of all, unpredictable. You can never be fully prepared for everything, no matter how hard you try. And that isn’t a bad thing. So many things about travelling are out of your control. It’s hard to remember that sometimes. And you may have a breakdown in an airport. (I did!)

But the journey goes on, and the whirlwind will continue to whisk you away to new adventures. 

While I may not feel fully prepared, if nothing else, this whirlwind month has given me plenty of stories to tell and small reminders of important life lessons. I’ll never know exactly what is coming, but the fact that I have made it so far (airport breakdown and all!) is a comforting thought.

So here we go… out of one whirlwind and into another!

Aly

The Next Destination

Hello, all!

I’ve hesitated to write this blog post for a while now. It’s been a crazy time of the year for me with schoolwork, but more importantly– I finally found out where I am going abroad next semester!

As some back story, when I applied for an exchange program, my options were the Netherlands, England, Finland, and Sweden. All of the schools I applied to had programs that sounded interesting to me and covered topics that include international studies/law and environmental studies/law, which are my particular areas of interest and the main focus of my studies in the United States.

To be honest, I hadn’t really considered the possibility of not getting my first few choices. In my mind, I couldn’t wrap my head around the potential of the situation turning out any other way.

The program I got accepted to was the one in Finland. The second-to-last school on my list, one that I had barely considered.

When I initially found out, I found myself at a loss of words and overwhelmed with emotions. I was shaking as I opened the email from ISEP, the exchange program I am going through. My fingers crossed, my heart dropped to my stomach as the webpage loaded and revealed the information I’ve been dying to know but did not expect to receive so soon. I didn’t know how to react to this news. On one hand, I was accepted to a program and knew where I was going abroad! Travel is quickly approaching! I get to go to Europe again! These thoughts and the excitement they generated was tempered by the disappointment in not getting my first choice and the uneasy recognition that I knew nothing about the place where I will attend school for 5 months.

I hadn’t really thought about going to Finland before or the possibility that I could be placed there. It was one of those places in the world where I’ve never felt a strong desire to travel to, and there I was– realizing that I would be going to Finland and battling my frustration at not getting my first choice.

The distance between the United States and Finland.

The disappointment went away though. Finland was on my list for a reason, and the more I learn about the country and the school I am going to, the more excited I become about going there. It’s exciting now. Not knowing much about the place I am going may be scary, but it also leaves open so many possibilities and opportunities to learn. I will be forced out of my comfort zone– out of the comfort of a temperate climate that is not much different from the climate at home. I will be halfway around the world from home, further north than I have ever been, farther away from home than I have ever traveled. I’ll fly alone for 22 hours to get there, my first solo transatlantic flight.

It feels significant, that this trip abroad is all of those things and it is largely unexpected.

In high school, my trip to France was largely supported and planned by my parents. I was dependent upon them at the time, and while I am still dependent upon their support, most of the paperwork and preparation for the trip, as well as my situation abroad, will be independent. It makes sense for that to be the case. University is a completely different experience, and this will be completely different from my experience in France.

I think this is for the best. I can’t rely completely on my experiences before to set up expectations about what Finland will be like, especially since I know so little about it.

My trip is quickly approaching. Everything is becoming real and solidified as I complete paperwork, choosing classes and filling out applications for an apartment, for a residence permit… buying plane tickets.

I don’t know what I will think of Finland once I get there, but until then, I am learning all I can and slowly developing a crush on this country that is a complete mystery to me. The language, the people, the culture, the climate– all of these are things that I will experience with an open heart and an open mind.

And I can’t wait!

A bientot!
Aly